Reviewed by Stephen Mauro
By Arthur Cotterell
The Overlook Press, Woodstock, New York, 2005
In his comprehensive and far-ranging book Chariot: From Chariot to Tank, the Astounding Rise and Fall of the World’s First War Machine (The Overlook Press, Woodstock, New York, 2005, $29.95), Arthur Cotterell pursues the dispersed origins of the war chariot, the dynamics of its battlefield usage and its eventual eclipse by the mounted cavalryman and improved infantry tactics. Cotterell sets out to dispel the myth that the chariot was used simply as a heavy, horse-drawn tank thrust into enemy ranks. The chariot’s importance in ancient warfare was actually derived from its high mobility and raised firing platform, from which experienced bowmen could inflict casualties from afar and then quickly retire. Its devastating effect on ancient battlefields led to an arms race among competing kings, centralizing power in the hands of those rulers who could maintain the horses, craftsmen, trainers and warriors necessary to field large numbers of chariots. Cotterell emphasizes this point by describing the integral role chariots played in four distinct geographic regions: the Middle East, Europe, India and China.
By studying the dynamics of the chariot in each of these disparate regions, Cotterell enlightens the reader on the similar cultural attitudes each region applied toward chariot warfare and warriors. The chariot warrior in any army across the ancient world was perceived as a member of an elite class, well skilled in the composite bow and in the rigors of controlling a team of horses. He was beholden only to the king, who could never afford to be without his “chief men.” International correspondence between rulers of the time recognized the legitimacy that a horde of charioteers could give to a leader. In India the chariot was so important that the exploits of chariot warriors became the topic for Ramayana and the Mahabharata, two of that subcontinent’s epic poems.
The regions had their differences, and Cotterell describes them in a way that sheds light on varying cultural attitudes toward chariot warfare. In China, for instance, the reasons to commit one’s prized chariots to battle were very different from those in the ancient Near East. According to ancient Chinese military histories, a battle was only joined when the justice of one’s cause was apparent and when it was determined that the foe had lost the loyalty and obedience of his men. A ruler lost a battle because he deserved to do so through his personal faults, and because he did not uphold honor and courtesy on the battlefield. Cotterell describes one Chinese chariot battle in which enemy soldiers stopped to help a chariot warrior out of a ditch instead of killing him while prone. Success could only come through mutual honor and respect between equal members of the chariot warrior class.
Such mannered skirmishes had no correlation to the Battle of Kadesh in 1274 bc, in which the Hittite King Muwatalli sent local townspeople to lie about the location of his army, causing Pharaoh Ramses II to confidently advance his chariots without knowing the danger ahead. Muwatalli sprung his trap with 3,500 chariots, encircling and nearly crushing the entire Egyptian vanguard. Forced to make a desperate chariot charge with his chief warriors, Ramses was able to save his army and push the Hittite chariot force into the Orontes River. Chariot units were so important to the makeup of ancient armies that after this battle, Muwatalli was forced to make peace even though he still possessed an army of 47,500 men. This large and bloody encounter was the peak of chariot warfare in the ancient world, and offers a marked counterpoint to the more limited battles waged in China at the time.
Despite their once foremost status at the helm of ancient armies, chariots experienced a marked decline in effectiveness from about 1000 bc onward. They were eventually eclipsed by a combination of conscripted common foot infantry and the rise of the cavalry archer, a more versatile unit capable of deploying in any type of weather or terrain.
The sweeping scope of Cotterell’s survey is both Chariot’s greatest strength and biggest weakness. At times, mythical tales that possess only a tangential relationship to the chariot can distract him. At one point, he dives into the exploits of Odysseus in Homer’s Odyssey without ever clarifying how this tale relates to chariots. It seems that since evidence for the use of chariots in ancient Europe is scant, Cotterell tries to force a connection to the epics where one does not exist. He also tries at the end of the book to compare the chariot to the modern tank, but never succeeds in proving their correlation on the battlefield, especially since technologies that created the chariot were introduced slowly and simultaneously across the world, whereas the tank appeared suddenly on the battlefields of World War I in 1916. Cotterell’s discursive tendency aside, Chariot offers a fascinating and in-depth study of a highly effective war machine that revolutionized ancient warfare.